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The Myth of Experts
By Jan Fortune-Wood

More and more, we are becoming taken in by the myth of experts and for most people the myth originates in school.

The Myth of ExpertsCompulsory (or apparently compulsory), free education removes learning not only from the learner’s control, but also from the parents’ sphere of influence. Both parents and children are deskilled by a system that perpetuates the myth that expert teachers are central to real learning. The concept of skilled families is replaced by the notion of families who are either conforming, and consequently “good”, or non-conforming and consequently “bad” or at least dysfunctional. The notion of autonomous, rational children is replaced with the idea of dependent sub-humans, not fit to be treated as moral agents in their own right, with little or no insight into their own learning needs and goals.

There is undoubtedly a role for expertise in modern life. We can’t all know everything. Skill and knowledge specializations and the interdependence that comes from them are a foundation for human progress and prosperity. This does not, however, justify the bogus professionalization of learning per se. Learning is an activity of life and introducing compulsion and extrinsic motivation into this activity not only impedes the intrinsic growth of knowledge, but is unlikely to have precisely the outcomes which educators intend since the “products” are not passive, but complex autonomous human people.

It might well be the case that schooling is set up with the best interests of children in mind, but the very act of defining these best interests for another human being, and then compounding this basic error by coercing children into schools, negates the intention, however laudable. It is a big jump from saying that experts serve a useful purpose and ought to be listened to with very serious consideration when they speak within their given field, to asserting that children cannot learn without teachers. The logic is simply not apparent, nor is this the experience of thousands of home-educated children and their parents.

Most parents, however unconfident they might feel, take it for granted that (barring insurmountable disabilities) their child will learn to walk, to talk, to perform a burgeoning number of complex functions and display a huge array of learning before the idea of schooling ever surfaces. Yet, extraordinarily, parents fear that these same children will stop learning and fall into ignorant savagery if they are not forced to go to school at increasingly young ages and there learn what the so-called experts dictate. The idea that school and teachers are the essential pre-requisites of learning is as false as it is widespread. We all know that learning takes place on a much grander and more unpredictable scale than schools can ever cater to; yet societies persist with the cult of expert teachers. Why?

The reasons are legion, but one key issue is that schools, apart from any learning agenda that they ostensibly have, have become the bastions of free childcare; much to the relief and convenience of many parents. This summer we have had a stream of visitors – since moving to a place where we are surrounded by mountains, lakes, sea, and breath-taking coast line we have become much more popular with friends we haven’t seen for years, most of whom have their children firmly in schools. The father of one visiting family told us in no uncertain terms that he simply did not want to spend time with his children; he could not envision a life in which they featured for more than an hour a day and he could not conceive how it could be possible for families to survive financially or emotionally if there was any more than this minimal interaction.

Schools absolve parents from the responsibility of being the primary helpers in the lives of their children. The whole edifice of conventional parenting, which sees children as problems to be solved, bolsters the idea that school is a good solution; children are not only occupied, out of sight, but are “getting an education” and a free one at that.

Along with this convenience and lessening of responsibility, comes a cost, which itself becomes another reason for continuing to believe the myth. Parents and children alike are deskilled and made dependent by the myth that learning requires teachers. Parents come to believe that they could not possibly compete with the learning opportunities available within schools, often without ever questioning whether these are the learning opportunities that are even remotely relevant to their children. Children themselves come to believe that without coercion they would be lazy, unmotivated and lapse into stupidity.

"The idea that school and teachers are the essential prerequisites of learning is as false as it is widespread. We all know that learning takes place on a much grander and more unpredictable scale than schools can ever cater to."

Home education explodes all of these myths. Parents and children are ideally placed to develop their own spheres of expertise and to access the expertise of the communities, geographical or virtual, in which they live. Dispensing with schoolteachers does not mean dispensing with really useful experts. Many home-educated children find creative ways to locate just the kind of expert help that their intrinsic motivations require. It might involve hiring a music tutor; it might involve posting a question on an academic board on an Internet newsgroup; it might entail phoning a local university professor or going to an archeological dig or a veterinary surgery or an artist’s studio. The methods are as disparate as the human imagination allows. The common thread is that the learner is center stage, accessing the information and resources required for his own pursuits with the aid of parents who will give all the help they can.

Home education is not anti-expertise; it is anti-external-agenda in education; it is anti the myth of expertise, which says that there is only one way to learn and that it is found in artificial places called schools. At is best, home education uses expertise much more richly than schools can ever hope to, and always by the child’s own lights and without forming the closed assumption that this is the only way to learn.

In this respect, home education has three characteristics. Firstly, it is inevitably more resourceful, creative, and flexible; at the cutting edge of educational thinking, especially as society becomes increasingly postmodern, event-driven, and flexible. Schools serve an outdated notion of society based on factories, large offices, and inflexible chains of command.

As society moves away from this model at an increasing pace, schools are ill placed to adapt; the structural and institutional model which is so fundamental to their identity simply militates against the message of flexibility, creative thinking; and autonomy that home education is perfectly placed to engender. Autonomous children who are not used to the rhetoric of compulsion in their lives are much better placed to seek out educational opportunities of every kind and to find ways of learning that schooled children could not even dream of.

"Home educated children, whose autonomy is valued and whose intrinsic motivation is nurtured, don’t have any false notions of expertise; they seek the genuine experts, not the classroom bound dictators, and they know that ultimately, in terms of their own lives and learning, they are their own experts."

Secondly, and related to this resourceful flexibility, home-based education tends to give rise to learning which is more diverse than the learning allowed for within any curriculum. Across a spectrum of home-educated children, many individual children will tend to exhibit passions and knowledge that are more specialized, deeper and perhaps more idiosyncratic than their school-going peers. School curricula sell the myth of education that needs to be “broad and balanced. Behind this rhetoric is the fact that in trying to cater to everyone, schools opt for small amounts of shallow, disjointed knowledge, much of which will be irrelevant and forgotten by most of the learners. Home education is a much more efficient and targeted form of learning because it is intrinsically motivated. If children seem to be following their passions to the exclusion of other areas, we can do well to remember that most of life’s real “experts” found ways of doing just the same, often in spite of the school system. Innovative thinkers are usually those who really care about the area they are thinking about, often to the exclusion of much else.

Thirdly, home education tends to be less predictable than school education. It is arguable that the predictability of school education is itself a charade, and that the concepts of value-added and outcomes applied to children are not ultimately effective even within the system they serve. After all, school fails more children than it serves so the predictability is cold comfort. On the other hand, home educators who respect the autonomy of children as learners are not likely to be able to decide where it is all leading. It demands a certain amount of serendipity, much vigilance for clues of what learning and resources might be helpful, and a great deal of trust and optimism. These things are not only possible, but are ultimately the only moral way to help our children become educated.

My visiting friend was right on one point: Home education certainly demands an input of resources, whether in time, money, or raw commitment to our own children and if we want our children to be conforming, homogenous products then it is not the path to take. If, on the other hand, we value autonomy and true freedom in education, we have an established, growing, and flourishing alternative in the thousands of home educating families who are already re-defining what education means.

Home education is not merely a negative expedient in the face of a failing system, but a positive range of educational choices. The learning environment can be precisely tailored to individual learning styles and preferences. One child might prefer to work in a stimulating environment, full of sound and color, while another chooses a calm, quiet environment. The friendly learning environment focuses on strengths, building self-confidence and self-esteem. Criticism comes only as something constructive and welcome. The child (together with his or her family) defines and creates the environment rather than the environment defining the child. Families practicing home-based education are free to pursue event-driven lifestyles rather than clock-driven lifestyles, allowing maximum flexibility and access to an increasingly event-driven society. Government-controlled curriculum is replaced with the positive idea of learning dictated by the intrinsic motivation of the child and/or the educational philosophy of the family. Home education helps children develop research skills as they increasingly learn to control and manage their own learning. This equips them to be real researchers and producers of knowledge, not just consumers of pre-defined educational packages.

Home education naturally promotes a sense of being in control and responsible, part of a wider vision of developing and supporting moral and humane family and societal institutions. Children remain a full part of local communities with the ability to fully access community facilities, such as libraries, shops, museums, exhibitions, theaters, transport, art centers, and so on. Home educated children, whose autonomy is valued and whose intrinsic motivation is nurtured, don’t have any false notions of expertise; they seek the genuine experts, not the classroom bound dictators, and they know that ultimately, in terms of their own lives and learning, they are their own experts.

Dr. Jan Fortune-Wood is a freelance writer, poet and parenting adviser. She is the author of four titles on home education, autonomous education and non-coercive parenting: (‘Doing It Their Way’; ‘Without Boundaries’; ‘Bound To Be Free’ & ‘With Consent’, all published by Educational Heretics Press). Her four children were home educated.

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